On the verge of suicide, Prince Hamlet wonders if he should live or leave. And if he chooses to go, what awaits? Endless sleep? Or the dread of “the undiscovered country,” from where no travelers return?
If Hamlet sat on Sigmund Freud’s couch, the Father of Psychoanalysis would assure him that life is life. When it ends he’ll need no cartographer. Death is final. One and done.
Were Hamlet to meet C.S. Lewis, the Oxford (and later Cambridge) professor of literature would first chide him for not mentioning Paradise among his choices, then would offer a logical argument for faith.
As if speaking to Hamlet, Lewis wrote: “Here is a door behind which, according to some people, the secret of the universe is waiting for you. Either it’s true or it isn’t. If it isn’t, then what the door really conceals is simply the greatest fraud…on record.”
Were Freud and Lewis to confront each other, which they never did, most likely each would try to disabuse the other of his “fraudulent” worldview.
They meet in Mark St. Germain’s 75-minute play. It takes place September 3, 1939. Germany began its invasion of Poland on the first, and Freud, suffering from oral cancer, will die in 20 days. Freud invited Lewis to his London home because for much of his early life Lewis was an avowed atheist. Freud wants to know why such an “intelligent” man would convert to Christianity.
Freud is 83 and in great pain. Lewis, 40, has yet to write The Screwtape Letters, Chronicles of Narnia, and Mere Christianity. Freud’s personal sky is overcast with no silver-linings; Lewis’ cloud-free. They dispute like conflicting weather-systems.
Topics range from faith to the Problem of Evil to suicide (which Freud contemplates: “look into my mouth,” he shouts, “and you will see hell has arrived already!”). The only thing they agree on is “the question of God,” — also the title of a 2004 book by Armand Nicholi, where the playwright got most of his material.
Freud’s Last Session is both refreshing and a bit bland. In a time where many playwrights wouldn’t recognize a theme if it hit them in the word processor, it’s refreshing to hear ideas — the big ones — contested on a stage. At the same time, even with the radio making history with every word and air-raid sirens bombarding your brain, the piece is static. And the conflict’s a mite muted, as if the author wants to present, but apparently not offend, both sides.
The North Coast Rep benefits from detailed performances by Bruce Turk, as a spry and youthful Lewis, and Michael Santo a crusty Freud facing his demise and wondering what if. They wear Alina Bokovikova’s precise costumes — Lewis frumpy; Freud funereal — and perform on Marty Burnett’s excellent, oak-walled set. Freud’s desk (based on his actual one in London) is covered with ancient statues and figurines — “all dead gods,” Lewis remarks.
Best of show: when Melanie Chen’s sound design recreates an air raid, the men scamper and cringe. So maybe there are no atheists in fox-holes.